Reengineering a Framework for Existence Despite Business Success:

A Talk with Entrepreneur Yuki Aoyama

A couple successful start ups under his belt. Money to back them. An entrepreneur in residence at an elite U.S. business school. A seemingly charmed life. And yet, Yuki Aoyama felt compelled to seek mental health counseling for a deepening depression. Something was wrong that desperately required change. “I had to think deeply about life,” Aoyama explained. It was a somewhat weird juxtaposition, as we sat together in a hallway nook having this intense conversation, while his fellow business school students hustled by chatting amicably.

For some quick background and context, Aoyama graduated from Keio University, Tokyo, in 2005; did a 10-year stint at a publicly traded corporation; graduated from the Tuck School of Business in 2017; and while there was an entrepreneur in residence, and had a very cool summer internship with notable Silicon Valley VC Draper Nexus. As mentioned, he also launched a couple companies, including Splink, Inc., in January 2017, at which he is now CEO. Splink is a healthcare tech company dedicated to improving the diagnosis of neurological diseases through AI solutions.

As we talked – (the conversation took place shortly before his graduation in May 2017, so we’re a little slow on the draw with this one) – Aoyama proceeded to recall a number of stressors that converged to create an emotional and mental storm, even though he was realizing success as an entrepreneur. Several of them are themes we hear consistently – money, loss of control, isolation, personal relationships going south. For him, the money and loss of control were tied together.

Losing Control
Even though his first start up had funding from seven VCs, he still said, “The financial pressure can be huge.” In fact, in his case he said that the VC support became the worst possible situation because they immediately wanted to know the exit plan (a.k.a. payoff). The VCs wanted the company sold in 5-7 years, whereas Aoyama had envisioned building the company over many years. They won and he lost control. “I hated losing control,” he said flatly.

To avoid being financially dependent on others, Aoyama advises, “The most important thing is to find one or two areas that you are passionate about. Think very, very carefully about your business model. You must know where the pressure could come from, and have a model and plan to avoid it.” Incidentally, he made it clear that business model does not refer to fancy spreadsheets with financial models, but rather understanding your revenue streams, strategic partners, and structure of the business itself.

For his most recent start up, Splink, he and his partner funded the prototype, then pitched it to the government of Japan, which subsequently provided the needed funding. (In the U.S. there are states and regions that offer loans and other support under economic development packages, which is essentially what he got in Japan). Aoyama grinned as he pointed out the obvious: No need for VCs now.

The Spiral into Depression
Returning to Aoyama’s spiral into depression, isolation was another factor. He had gone to Tuck to develop and hone professional and business skills he knew he needed, but there was no cadre of fellow entrepreneurs to shoot the shit with, to commiserate with, to bounce ideas off. (Tuck is in relatively remote Hanover, NH.) When he did go to entrepreneurial conferences and during his internship at Draper Nexus, he noted, “It was good to talk to other entrepreneurs, because they know how you think, how you feel. But they didn’t give advice.” The latter comment is interesting because it points to how a self-aware entrepreneur knows better than to impress their views on others; they understand that their fellow entrepreneurs have their own unique situations and struggles. It’s kind of like being a good mentor (or shrink) who knows how to ask the right questions so you find the answers yourself.

Another isolating factor for Aoyama was the fact that he was married and had a one-year old child, with both wife and child back in Japan. This brings us to the crux of his depression and why he sought online counseling. It actually begins with his idealistic expectations in becoming an entrepreneur. “My incentive to become an entrepreneur was not driven by money,” he said. “It’s to change the world with my talent and technology.” His expectation was to start a business that would not only have a positive impact on society but would also make his wife and parents happy, proud. That’s not what happened.

“I was so focused on the business that I started fighting with my wife,” he recalled in a subdued tone. “She got depressed. Then I got depressed.” Aoyama noted that in the Japanese culture men are more focused on business than in the U.S. or Europe, where family is also important. He would have to break his culture’s stereotype. Before doing so, however, the unhappiness and depression became more intense.

Action Plan for Change
Finally, Yuki realized change had to happen, and he admitted, “I had to think deeply about life.” That’s when he decided to try online counseling, which he did twice a month with a specialist who was located in Japan. It helped tremendously and he recommends it. It wasn’t that he got great advice, but he was able to talk to someone, to vent to a professional who listened and understood what he was going through. “It gave me an opportunity to share,” he said.

Meanwhile, at Tuck he took a leadership course that delved into personality and happiness. “I learned a new framework for my life,” he stated. “I made small, different changes in priorities.” As way of example, he explained how instead of business being 51% and family 49%, he flip-flopped it in his mind so that family became the top priority. “If there is family stuff to do, it comes first,” he said. “Then I do business stuff.” He created a legitimate action plan to change his behavior for when with his family. He used to wake up at 8 or 9 a.m., then work until 2am. Now he wakes at 5 a.m. and is home by 7 p.m., for quality family time. Once home he completely unplugs. No iPhone, nothing. He and his wife will also set aside “date” time.

He gleaned other insights from the course: “Being honest, approachable and having a deeper sense of gratitude allows me to open myself up to greater connections. I no longer feel the need to hide my weaknesses. … I’ve learned that it’s okay to be vulnerable. I now appreciate that rather than an aggressive fighter, I depend on and need to rely on others.” On his own, Aoyama also worked on his mental and emotional framework, namely by reading a series of books that he highly recommends:

  • How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen, with James Allworth and Karen Dillon. A world-renowned innovation expert, Christensen digs into his own research and experiences to offer up some guidance on “finding meaning and happiness in life.”
  • The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT by Russ Harris. Apparently the pursuit of happiness can actually make you stressed out, so Harris points the way through ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).
  • The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living by Amit Sood, M.D. A Mayo Clinic specialist in the area of stress, Sood lays out the Clinic’s stress management program that he developed and based on 20 years of work with thousands upon thousands of people.

As a 30-ish successful entrepreneur, husband and father, Aoyama undertook a serious self-evaluation, and then effectively reengineered his framework for existence – which also had cultural implications. Evidence that it can be done!

For more on Yuki Aoyama, click here